POLSON – Tens of thousands of days – a lifetime’s worth – will stretch between two historic moments on the Flathead Indian Reservation.
It was 31,019 days ago today that the construction of Kerr Dam started on the Flathead River below Polson.
In one key way, it was an odd time for Rocky Mountain Power – a subsidiary of the Montana Power Company – to embark on such an ambitious project. The stock market crash of 1929 had occurred less than seven months earlier, and the Great Depression was just revving up.
Still, they started building the dam on May 23, 1930. The growing demand for electricity to power the mining and smelting operations in Butte and Anaconda was the driving force. The Indian tribes on whose reservation the dam would be built – at an important religious and cultural site for them, no less – were not consulted.
By the next year, the economy was so bad that construction was halted. For five long years, the massive project sat stalled. When the Montana Power Company re-started it in 1936, it must have been something to see.
“Higher than Niagara Falls” (by 38 feet), as local promotional materials have long noted, the 205-foot-tall dam raised the level of the 30-mile-long lake behind it by 10 feet. Those 10 feet added another 1.2 million acre feet of storage.
That’s an extra 391 billion gallons of water.
More than 1,200 people were employed at the height of construction. Less-skilled workers were paid 40 cents an hour; those more skilled earned up to $2 an hour. Small rail lines that clung to both sides of the cliffs along the river were built to ferry workers and materials to the dam, which had no road access at the top. A tent city that seemed to know no end sprang up west of the site.
Fourteen workers were killed in accidents before the dam was completed in 1938, many in a landslide, and several of them members of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.
And now, 132 days from today and more than 85 years since construction started, those tribes will take ownership of the dam.
Brian Lipscomb has had a mental countdown to Sept. 5 – the day CSKT takes over ownership and operation of the dam from NorthWestern Energy – going in his head for a long time now.
Lipscomb is the CEO of Energy Keepers, the tribally owned corporation tasked with overseeing acquisition of the dam and which – come Sept. 5 – will be responsible for running it, and selling the electricity it produces on the open market.
On a recent April day, he showed a reporter and photographer around the hydroelectric plant where three units produce enough electricity to power more than 100,000 homes.
Kerr Dam is somewhat unusual in that its powerhouse is not located in the dam itself.
“At Hungry Horse and Libby (dams), it’s right at the base,” Lipscomb says. “At Hungry Horse, it’s in the dam itself and you ride an elevator down to it.”
At Kerr Dam, the power plant is located just downstream from, but out of sight of, the dam – not far away at all, but around a sharp bend. The towering cliffs along this part of the Flathead River hide the dam and power plant from one another.
So how does the rushing water that spins the 60-ton turbines get from the dam to the plant?
Massive underground tunnels were blasted through the cliffs in the 1930s. The first, about two football fields long, started above the dam and came out below the power plant. It diverted the river during the eight years the dam and power plant were under construction.
That tunnel was sealed off above the dam when construction was complete, but is still open down below.
“One of the other operators took a rowboat up in it once,” says Rod VanNess, a tribal member and hydro operator who has completed his training and already is in the rotation for NorthWestern Energy. “He said he got in there a ways before it started to climb uphill.”
And how was it?
“Dark and spooky,” VanNess says with a laugh.
The other three tunnels – technically, penstocks – are more than 200 feet long, 27 feet in diameter, and carry water to the plant’s three units through the massive concrete-and-steel underground pipes.
Making all four tunnels was a laborious project. “One guy would hold the drill, one guy would whack it with a sledgehammer,” Lipscomb says. “They’d put the dynamite in the hole, blast it, clear the rocks and do it all again.”
Lipscomb says Unit 1 was installed in 1938, Unit 2 in 1939, and Unit 3 in 1954, a year after Hungry Horse Dam was completed.
“Hungry Horse gave the system more storage, and more opportunity” to produce electricity, Lipscomb says.
A Francis turbine rated at 78,500 horsepower that was retired from Unit 3 in 2006 sits near the entrance to the power plant to show visitors just how big they are.
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Nearby is the picturesque little village – half a dozen homes near the river – that have historically been provided to dam employees and their families. These days, most employees have homes elsewhere, and only one operator has lived in the village full-time.
Lipscomb says some of the houses may be utilized as office space after Energy Keepers takes over at the start of Labor Day weekend. Energy Keepers currently leases space in the Salish Building in Polson, but plans to eventually establish permanent offices.
The tribal corporation will employ 21 to 22 people, several times the number NorthWestern Energy and its predecessor, PPL Montana, employed locally to run the dams. NorthWestern bought 11 hydroelectric facilities from PPL just five months ago, knowing that the federal license to operate Kerr Dam would be transferring to CSKT in September.
Many of the positions have already been filled, and at least half of them will be held by tribal members. Travis Togo is the director of power management and Daniel Craig Howlett is power marketing manager.
Lloyd Turnage, who has many years of experience working at Kerr Dam, is the operations supervisor. Billy Bryant is power plant maintenance engineer, Matthew Pruchnik the chief dam safety engineer and Dustin Shelby the compliance manager.
Positions have been filled in finance, risk and administration. The Energy Keepers board of directors includes chairman Thomas Farrell, vice chairman Daniel Decker, secretary Robert Gauthier and members Thomas Babineau and Lon Topaz.
The larger workforce isn’t an expansion, Lipscomb says, just a local consolidation of the number of positions required to operate and maintain the dam, and market and sell its electricity. Under the dam’s previous owners, many of those jobs were located far from the reservation.
“The functions that were taken care of in Butte, Great Falls, Billings and Allentown, Pennsylvania, we’re bringing them all here,” Lipscomb says.
Energy Keepers will differ from all other tribal corporations in some key aspects, Lipscomb says.
“We’ll be the first tribal corporation to be managing a resource – Flathead Lake and the river – in its business,” he says.
By the foundational terms of its corporate charter, Energy Keepers has also waived its sovereign immunity from lawsuits in order to assure its customers that any disputes that might arise from transactions of Kerr Project electricity can be resolved in courts available to all counterparties.
And, Energy Keepers will not retain any of its earnings. Lipscomb says all profits will go directly to the CSKT government.
That government long ago traded the potential of higher rental fees for the land the dam sits on – which now approaches $20 million annually – for the opportunity to one day buy the dam outright. CSKT has held a joint license for the dam from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission since Sept. 5, 1985, first with Montana Power, then PPL Montana, and now NorthWestern Energy.
Under the license’s terms, the tribes have had the exclusive right to purchase the dam on the 30th anniversary of the issuance of that license.
The license is good for another 20 years.
Last year, an American Arbitration Association panel set the price at $18.3 million – about $3.5 million more than the tribes felt it was worth, but more than $30 million less than what PPL Montana had sought.
Much of the difference was for potential mitigation costs associated with the dam, and Lipscomb has said the panel’s ruling “means we won’t have to pay for damages to our own resources.”
Prior to 1930, when the Flathead River here flowed free, Lipscomb says the site where Kerr Dam sits was not a waterfall so much as a “series of intense drops” as the river made its way around the sharp bend.
Translated from the Salish and Kootenai native languages, Indians called it the “Place of the Falling Waters.”
The dam, named for the president of Montana Power when it was constructed, will get a new name before Sept. 5. Lipscomb says tribal members will be asked to suggest traditional names and the Tribal Council will make a final decision.
Changing the name of a dam is an involved process, according to Lipscomb.
"It's not just changing a sign," he says. "The new name will send the message that the dam is tribally owned, and will have a unique perspective on our landscape."
Most tribal members opposed the dam’s construction, but when it started in May of 1930, no tribal government existed.
During the five years construction on the dam ceased because of the Great Depression, the federal government passed legislation – the Indian Reorganization Act – that allowed tribes to form their own governments.
Lipscomb says the damming of the Flathead River, along with allotment and the ongoing Flathead Indian Irrigation Project, were all contributing factors to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes becoming the first in the nation to adopt their own constitution and form their own government in 1935.
Now they’re on the verge of owning the very dam that played a role in the establishment of their tribal government. They will be the first Indian tribes in the nation to own a major hydroelectric facility.
The countdown to the historic day has been on for decades for some tribal members. On Sunday, it clicks down to just 132 days.